Our Program’s Turning Point in Technology

AppsThe child support program has a deep culture of innovation and investment in technology.  Technology makes it possible to locate parents and enforce support for 17.5 million children. Technology also can help us identify effective enforcement strategies, intervene early when payments fall off, and support excellent customer service at every point of contact with our program.

The January 2012 Child Support Report highlights two of the ways that technology is improving our case management and customer service, through early-intervention “alerts” in Colorado and electronic document management in West Virginia.

We need technology to help us:

  • Locate income and assets for the 75 percent of our caseload that does not need hands-on service intervention.
  • Identify the 25 percent of parents who lack steady employment and analyze service needs.  Technology can help us conduct case analysis, segment our caseload, use data analytics, and track performance data at the caseworker, manager and executive levels. We don’t need to impute income on a routine basis anymore. We can develop income profiles of our noncustodial parents. No case should be going to court on a contempt motion without an analysis of the real financial situation of the noncustodial parent. 
  • Improve customer service for a new generation of parents, many of whom grew up without a parent, have diverse ethnic backgrounds, and get their information through technology. We can expand interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can make applications for services available online for our program and other programs, and link parents to benefit calculators and program navigators.  We can develop apps, such as text4baby.
  • Develop online staff training and online resource libraries.
  • Tell our story differently through the electronic face of our program—not only to each other, but to specific groups of stakeholders, community organizations and the public—through customer-friendly websites, short videos of real parents describing their experiences, and useful online resources.

A final note: According to the USDA Expenditures on Children by Families report, the costs of child-rearing vary considerably by household income level and age of the child. The Cost of Raising a Child Calculator can estimate how much it will annually cost to raise a child. This may help your agency work with parents to plan better for overall expenses. Asset-building strategies like those in Texas (see the Child Support Report) present ways we can encourage both parents to manage their money so they are better able to support their children and improve their own situations.

Please submit a comment on this blog with a way that we might use technology as we head into a new year filled with great potential for our program.

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Welcoming Back Parents in the Military

Military parent 1Over the past decade, the child support program has come to view both parents as its customers. We can’t do right by children unless we extend a helping hand to those mothers and fathers who need it. This is particularly the case for military families who have put themselves on the line for our country.

In her article in the December Child Support Report, Gwen Anderson, military liaison for Delaware’s child support program, talks about this changing approach to noncustodial parents. Gwen personifies the commitment to collaboration that we share in our program. As Gwen says, collaboration with military and veteran organizations “can offer great rewards for the child support agency, both parents, and most importantly, the children.” 

The story about Delaware is one of several in the newsletter about projects that demonstrate that the child support program is becoming a place where military families can turn to for help with child support-related concerns.

I am proud to see child support professionals around the country reach out to military and veteran parents. You may be a specialized military liaison, attorney, caseworker, call center staff, or receptionist. Whatever your role, the time you invest in helping parents manage their child support cases and related family issues is time invested in children.

We’ve added a new section on the OCSE website—Working with our Military and Veteran Parents—that links to three new fact sheets and other resources. The fact sheets are part of a broader OCSE initiative to reach out to parents who are currently deployed or returning to civilian life. Over the coming months, we will continue to develop information that we hope will be useful to you, military and veteran organizations, and families.

Please submit a comment on this blog to share your examples of working with military and veteran families in the child support program.

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Our Growing Tribal Child Support Programs

Indian kidsThe number of tribal child support programs is growing—and many children are thriving as a result. Today, 42 tribes operate comprehensive programs and another 10 tribes manage start-up programs on their way to becoming comprehensive. Other tribes have expressed an interest in starting child support programs that meet the needs of Indian families and communities.

Tribes have long understood the value of working in a holistic environment compatible with the “bubble chart” as we see in the many examples of family-centered services in recent Child Support Report articles. We’ve read about Osage Nation’s program to help parents avoid incarceration (April); Albert Pooley’s (President of the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association) perspectives on strengthening families (June); Nez Perce Tribe’s video in social media to promote a fatherhood training program (September); and how child support agencies can address the prevalence of domestic violence in tribal families (October). And in the November issue, we learn about the Modoc tribal program’s enforcement tool that’s helping noncustodial parents obtain employment and avoid incarceration.

Tribal child support programs, like state and county programs, are well-positioned to provide holistic services by forming partnerships with other tribal programs, such as TANF, child welfare, workforce, community colleges, fatherhood, wellness, domestic violence, and justice programs. These cross-program partnerships can help increase reliable child support payments through expanded work opportunities and stronger family relationships.

With the signing of the ACF Tribal Consultation Policy, we are educating more staff within ACF about working with tribal programs. The Administration for Native Americans distributed a book titled Working in Indian Country:  Building Successful Business Relationships with American Indian Tribes. OCSE appreciates its ongoing collaboration with ANA to identify innovative cross-program strategies that can support tribal programs.

The MTS (Model Tribal System) testing continues with the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma and Forest County Potawatomi Community tribal child support programs. Once testing is completed later this year, both tribes will load their respective caseloads onto their copies of the system and move into full production mode. Early next year, the MTS is slated to roll out nationwide, and will be available at that time to all interested tribes. To support the MTS project into the future, OCSE secured a contractor to provide ongoing software maintenance support, including both maintenance of the base system and any future enhancement activities.

We continue to engage tribes in a collaborative process to move the program forward in a way that is culturally appropriate so more and more children and families will thrive.

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Helping Domestic Violence Survivors Pursue Child Support Safely and Confidentially

boy at windowEconomic dependence is one of the main reasons that women remain with or return to an abusive partner. The research says that more than 90 percent of custodial mothers who face the risk of domestic violence want and need to pursue child support if they can do so safely and confidentially. Nonetheless, a parent may hesitate to seek child support services if she is afraid for her safety, and especially if she is worried about the safety of her child. What can we, as child support professionals, do to help domestic violence survivors in this situation?

Our opportunities to help parents who experience domestic violence have been expanding over the past few years. More than ever before, the child support program is committed to collaboration with other agencies that can help, and connecting vulnerable families to organizations that provide domestic violence services, including safety planning.

Why now? We are taking a greater role in collaboration with other government agencies and national and community organizations as we provide services to both parents—custodial and noncustodial. And because the child support program is in a unique position to offer services to both parents (and is making more efforts to engage fathers in the lives of their children), we also have a responsibility to reduce the risk of domestic violence and help domestic violence survivors pursue child support in safety.

Two points in a relationship are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence—around the birth of a child, and when a couple separates. Those are precisely the points when a custodial parent may initiate a child support case. How we do our work in the center of the Bubble Chart—our core mission of establishing and enforcing support—can mean the difference between economic independence and heightened risk for survivors of domestic violence. 

For example, consultation with parents who face a known risk of domestic violence, tailoring enforcement strategies, and confidentiality safeguards are essential for safely collecting support. The Federal Parent Locator Service assists domestic violence survivors by protecting their information through use of the Family Violence Indicator. 

And, the first rule is to do no harm. There are situations when it may not be safe to collect child support. Defer to the custodial parent’s judgment about whether child support services may be too dangerous to pursue. A series of studies conducted by the Center for Policy Research identified a number of factors to help predict whether a domestic violence survivor receiving TANF cash assistance wanted to claim good cause from child support cooperation. The best predictor is whether the father threatened to harm the children. Additional factors include whether the father threatened to harm the mother; tried to isolate her; hit or beat her up; monitored her telephone calls; prevented her from working; abused her within the past six months; or caused her to call the police.

As part of our commitment to safely enforcing child support, OCSE has dedicated one of the domains (or “bubbles”) in the Bubble Chart to Family Violence Collaboration. Take a look at our fact sheet that corresponds with that domain. It highlights opportunities for collaboration with other agencies, including your state’s or county’s TANF program, that address domestic violence. 

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, several articles in the October Child Support Report newsletter specify ways your child support agency can help parents with cases that involve vulnerable families. The articles mention websites and phone numbers for organizations where you can learn more, as well as OCSE resources such as the Intergovernmental Referral Guide that lists contact persons who handle domestic violence issues in each state.

Do you, or the child support agency where you work, offer services for one or both parents who may be involved in a domestic violence situation?  Do you collaborate with other agencies in any of the Bubble Chart domains that can help to address domestic violence? Please let me know by submitting a comment on this blog.

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‘Family-Centered Services’ Means Good Customer Service

Blowing bubblesPart of the meaning of “family-centered services” is providing good customer service. It means developing the habit of seeing yourself and your office through the eyes of the parents who interact with you, and reorganizing your work to become more responsive. Customer service is right in the center of the bubble chart—part of our core business.

What do you want from the child support program as a custodial mom, as a custodial dad, as a grandmother? First of all, you want results. You want the other parent to pay. You don’t want to waste your time. You don’t want to sit in a waiting room or in a phone queue. You don’t want to fill out paperwork over and over again. You want to get your questions answered. You want a clear understanding of what will happen to you in the process. You want to feel safe. You might want to apply for other programs, such as SNAP and SSI, if only someone would ask you. You don’t want to be judged. You want your worker to know what you are up against.

And if you are a noncustodial dad or mom? You want the worker to understand the complexity and sorrow of your life. You want to be treated as a parent, not a wallet. You want to be respected and understood. You want the system to work with you, not against you. You don’t want to be judged. You don’t want to be humiliated. You want a chance to make things right. You need a job. You want to see your kids. You want for your children what you might never have had.

Every one of us has had good and bad customer experiences. And we can identify precisely what went right or wrong in those experiences. Usually, when things go right, we feel that we matter, we feel heard, we are engaged in the process, and we can maintain some control over the outcome—whether we are ordering online, fixing a problem with a bill, or sitting in a hospital waiting room.

The child support program has a deep culture of innovation. Innovation starts with every worker and every manager saying out loud:  

Do you know what I saw? What I heard? What I read?

What if we …?

Why do we…?

We ought to try….

As child support offices around the country know, technology is part of the answer to providing good quality customer service, especially in a time of budget cutbacks. Technology can help us reach a new generation of parents, many of whom get their information through the internet. We can expand customer-friendly, interactive websites and voice response systems. We can use cell phone texts and email alerts to parents. We can post short videos with real customers to speak for our program and develop apps that make our internet services easy to use. We can encourage parents to apply for services online and link parents to such resources as benefit calculators and program navigators.  

But technology is not the whole answer. When states were implementing statewide computer systems in the 1990s, the prevailing idea was that we would become efficient collection agencies—highly automated, impersonal, with minimal caseworker intervention. Now we know that that approach is not enough. We need to build in the missing ingredient in our program—parental engagement. The money is important. But what we know now is that child support is about more than just money; it’s about families.

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State Services Portal – A Giant Step for Our Electronic Communications

Toddler at windowThe many systems that connect caseworkers around the country have become very important to the child support program. Child support professionals are able to help families get child support payments more quickly, and families are then better able to help their children thrive.

Many of you are already reaping the benefits of the State Services Portal—an exciting step forward in the world of child support electronic communications. Thanks to the portal (part of the Federal Parent Locator Service, or FPLS), state workers have web-based access to other states’ child support information through a secure, “single sign-on interface.” Last year the Query Interstate Cases for Kids (QUICK) and Federal Offset and Passport Denial applications, and the e-Employer Query Page, moved onto the State Services Portal.

Now there’s more! This summer we added new services and applications to the portal. Building on existing interfaces with states, users are able to access Locate, Debt Inquiry and Department of Defense (DOD) Entitlement data using the portal.

We could look at it this way. We have evolved from a program that was worker driven to one that is systems driven. But you can never take the worker out of our program. As the child support program evolves, so does the nature of our work. We want to position ourselves to be able to serve the 25 percent of the parents in our caseload who are struggling to make ends meet and manage their parental responsibilities. The State Services Portal is one way we are helping states improve services to parents.

Here are a few technical details about the portal:

  • Locate – States struggle with making program changes to take advantage of new locate sources. This enhancement allows a caseworker to request an FPLS locate through the portal. They will receive the NDNH data immediately and will be notified when the locate responses are available for them to view.
  • Debt Inquiry Service – Employers and insurers now have a central place to provide information about upcoming payments, such as a bonus or claim payment. The Debt Inquiry Service is designed to match the information that they provide to the Debtor file, which contains information submitted by state child support agencies to OCSE about delinquent child support debts. Matches are sent to the appropriate states so they can collect those payments.
  • DOD Entitlement – This enhancement gives states a faster method of obtaining information about entitlement payments for parents in the military (active and reservists).  Currently states submit a subpoena to DOD for this information, which can be a time-consuming process. The NDNH provides Quarterly Wage data as a total amount that includes all entitlements. The breakdown of entitlements provided with this enhancement will allow states to set more accurate child support orders.

States now using the portal are Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, North Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana and Virginia. You can learn more from the End User Support team at 800-258-2736 or CSENet.2000@lmco.com.

I’d like to hear about your experiences with the portal. Please share your comments on this Commissioner’s Voice blog.

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Improving Our Outreach to Hispanic and Latino Parents

Hispanic girls

The United States population is becoming more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, Hispanics and Latinos will constitute 30 percent of the U.S. population, up from 16.3 percent in 2010. We know that the composition of the child support program’s caseload is changing as well. We have more Latino and Hispanic families, as well as families from a range of other ethnic and immigrant groups.

Child support professionals are increasingly aware of our need to conduct outreach to the Hispanic community. We are doing more to tailor our customer service to address the linguistic and cultural barriers to navigating the child support program and accessing other social services. For example, we are offering more bilingual publications and advertising on local radio and TV.

We are forming and enhancing collaborations with community and faith-based organizations and working with practitioners and advocates, who can help us bridge the gap in providing information to Hispanic families about child support services. The organizations can offer accurate information, answer questions, provide advocacy services, and help to overcome parents’ mistrust and misunderstandings about the program.

This spring, an OCSE outreach training event in Florida furthered the child support program’s connections with community organizations (see the July 2011 Child Support Report). While we sometimes assume that community organizations are aware of our latest services, we know from events like the one in Florida the value of meeting face-to-face with representatives from organizations that have daily interaction with Hispanic families. Outreach events such as these serve as a valuable connection to the Hispanic community.

In Sonoma County, CA, the child support office is striving to increase collections among its Latino parents. The office created two postcards in Spanish and is disseminating them throughout the Latino community—with help from community organizations. The postcards explain child support services and help to alleviate apprehensions about connecting with a child support office. (See the postcards on page 4 in the Child Support Report.)

Earlier this month, OCSE was on hand to answer questions at the League of United Latin American Citizens’ annual conference in Cincinnati with more than 20,000 participants. And we are looking forward to an outreach event later this month at the National Council of LaRaza’s annual conference, where a national Latino Family Expo draws more than 200 exhibitors and 40,000 attendees! At both events, OCSE staff members share a booth with Head Start (a great way to demonstrate cross-program collaboration) and demonstrate the OCSE online toolkit on a laptop for passersby.  

Recently, HHS announced a new initiative to use Promotores de Salud to strengthen outreach and education on the availability of health services and insurance coverage to underserved Hispanic and Latino communities. The federal work group guiding the initiative represents several HHS offices including the Administration for Children and Families. OCSE will pay close attention as this initiative takes off.

We also plan to stay tuned-in to ways we can further our outreach to the Hispanic and Latino families through multiple channels of communication. Two national surveys conducted in 2010 by the Pew Research Center—the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2010 National Survey of Latinos and the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s Health Tracking Survey—made some very interesting findings. Did you know that 91 percent of Latinos say they get news from network, local, or cable television? Or that nearly half get their news in both English and Spanish? Or that Hispanics are more likely than whites to engage in instant messaging—an outreach opportunity for us?

Is technology helping your agency communicate with Spanish-speaking parents? Do you have a Facebook page that answers questions in Spanish? (Hispanics, like everyone else, use Facebook, says this blog). Do you post blogs that allow readers to submit comments, or use other social media to reach Hispanic and Latino families?

Let us know in your comment on this blog.

OCSE is learning, too. The more knowledge we can gain about our Hispanic parents, the better we’ll be able to reach out and offer responsive services to families.

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Spreading the Message on Our Commitment to Fatherhood

father and babyThe child support program is one of the few government programs that systematically reach men, and the only one to do so in their roles as fathers. Because the program serves so many children—a quarter of all children and half of all poor children—and both their parents throughout childhood, it is uniquely positioned to connect men to a range of resources to help them be the fathers they want to be. 

Across the country, child support programs are finding innovative new ways to help fathers provide for their children. State and local child support agencies have engaged in outreach, referral, case management and other activities in partnership with fatherhood, workforce, veterans, reentry, and asset-building programs to increase the ability of parents to support their children. They are working to engage fathers in the lives of their children, to increase noncustodial parent employment, to improve family relationships, and to address family violence prevention. 

OCSE Updated Bubble ChartThe OCSE “bubble chart” promotes the child support program’s vision for a more holistic family-centered approach to service delivery. Our collaborations with other public agencies and community organizations in the six domains of the bubble chart are enhancing the success of our program’s fundamental mission to reinforce the responsibility of parents to support their children when they live apart and to encourage fathers and mothers to be involved in their children’s lives. 

OCSE reconfirms our commitment to fatherhood issues through participation in a range of federal interagency initiatives, including six listed on page 3 in the June Child Support Report.

This month, the Child Support Report also brings you voices of fathers—leaders of three national organizations—who discuss their views on fatherhood. Four other articles look at research and state perspectives about unwed parents in our program. Several highlight the need for more services that target fathers across the country and point out efforts that are showing signs of success. All of the articles—plus another (on page 8) about a North Carolina county partnership with the local library—demonstrate the child support program’s obligation to speak out about our commitment to fatherhood issues.

We have a long way to go, but our collaborative work at every level of government and with community organizations strengthens our important message that the child support program is here to help parents, children, and families.

Happy Father’s Day to all!

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Child Support’s Role in Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

GrandparentRoughly 10 percent of the phone calls that ring in our OCSE customer service office are from grandparents seeking information about child support services; some have custody of their grandchildren. From conversations with these callers, we know that most grandparents who are thrust into custodianship of their grandchildren depend on access to public financial resources. Many, who may have accumulated some financial assets from years of working, are now living on fixed incomes. The OCSE staff helps to answer the grandparents’ questions about child support services, and often refers grandparent callers to other services, including SNAP (food stamps) and Access and Visitation services.

An AARP article tells its readers, “As increasing numbers of grandchildren rely on grandparents for the security of a home, their grandparents are taking on more of the responsibility for raising them in a tough economy—many with work challenges of their own. For these grandparents, raising another family wasn’t part of the plan. But they step up to the plate when their loved ones need them.”

A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data reports that 1 in 10 children in the United States lives with a grandparent. This ratio increased slowly and steadily over the past decade before rising sharply from 2007 to 2008, the first year of the recession. About 41 percent of those children are being raised primarily by the grandparent. And, nearly 20 percent of grandparent caregivers are living below the poverty level.

It isn’t a new phenomenon that grandparents often step in as primary caregivers. Grandparents step in, for example, to prevent the child from being moved into foster care or as a result of the parent’s military deployment, unemployment or incarceration. (A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than half of state inmates are parents.)

What is changing, however, is that child support agencies are beginning to help grandparents in a proactive customer-responsive manner. The article on page 1 of the May 2011 Child Support Report gives a snapshot of the Georgia Department of Human Resources’ holistic approach to providing grandparents with all of the available state services they might need. Georgia’s family-centered approach puts the OCSE “bubble chart” into action by providing a collaborative and coordinated approach to child support service delivery.

Does your state offer a holistic approach to providing services to grandparents? Please let me know by posting comments to this Commissioner’s Voice blog.

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Minority Male Health—We Can Help to Paint a Brighter Picture

Dad and son in poolApril is National Minority Health Month. The front-page article in the April 2011 Child Support Report paints a clear picture about how lack of access to affordable health care exacerbates the health and income disparities in this country. The article also highlights how the child support program can help to brighten the picture of health for minority men—by referring noncustodial parents to health care services. This potential role in connecting children and both parents to health care coverage is especially important since the Affordable Care Act will provide many new options for health care coverage.

We know that the ability to work and pay child support can be affected by chronic poor health. Employers have begun to recognize that the quality of health care that their workers receive is important to employee health, productivity, performance, and business outcomes. We also know that children’s continuity of coverage improves when their parents have health coverage. Research shows that an effective way to boost health coverage for low-income children is to expand public coverage options for their parents.

Because the child support program is one of the few public systems that reach large numbers of low-income men, we are uniquely positioned to become a key access point for male health care referrals. To explore the role of the child support program as an information and referral point for parents seeking to access affordable health care options, OCSE is entering into a new partnership with the HHS Office of Minority Health. Take a look at the website and let me know what you think—please leave your comment at the end of this blog.

Health care coverage referrals should be part of a family-centered, more holistic approach to services. You may be interested in the White House blog on What Health Reform Means for African Americans. 

We can also spread the word about grant opportunities. Understanding the health behaviors of racial and ethnic minority males is the premise behind upcoming NIH grants for testing culturally and linguistically appropriate health-promoting interventions to reduce health disparities among racially and ethnically diverse males.

Bubble ChartAs the front-page article stresses, partnerships are key to this holistic approach. OCSE continues to seek collaborative opportunities with federal and state agencies as well as community organizations that also serve our customers. For the “bubble chart” (left) to be successful, we’ll need to continue to create and strengthen relationships with other programs that serve the families who come into the child support program, such as Medicaid, CHIP, Head Start, SNAP (food stamps), WIC, and SSI. 

As OCSE continues to work on updating our medical support policy and regulations to increase health care coverage for the children in our caseload, we recognize that we can also serve children by helping their parents stay healthy.

I for one am excited that we have joined the health disparities discussion. I look forward to working with other leaders to reduce health disparities and bridge the gap between families and health care and other social services. We can help to paint a brighter picture of minority male health.

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